There has been a lot of rain here over the last couple of weeks. The ground is saturated with water. The stream is swollen and lapping at the edges of the daffodils. And the geese have found themselves inundated with muddy, pond-sized puddles to dabble in. But, in the moments of sunshine between heavy showers, we’ve noticed spring creeping up on us. The flowerbeds are full to the brim with pastel-coloured hyacinths, blue muscari, deep purple hellebores and primroses of the palest yellow. Woolly newborn lambs have appeared in the field next door. And the garden birds are singing their little hearts out. The longer days mean that we have just enough time to go for a walk after work in the evening light. Earlier in the week, on a stroll through one of our favourite woodlands, we foraged a few fir tree sprigs to make a pine needle vinegar.
Pine needle vinegar has become a firm staple in our kitchen. We wouldn’t be without a bottle of this forest gem on the cupboard shelf. We always make it with douglas fir tree (Pseudotsuga menziesii) needles, which taste of bitter grapefruit and orange. We find the younger foliage from smaller branches tends to have the best flavour. The finished vinegar, perhaps unsurprisingly, tastes very similar to the scent of the crushed needles: woodsy with lively citrus tones. It’s complex, refreshing and utterly delicious.
Making the vinegar infusion is very straightforward. We start by removing the pine needles from their branches. To do this, we hold the tip of the stem with one hand and then, with the other hand, gently pinch and slide a finger and thumb down the stem against the grain of the leaf growth. This strips off all the needles quickly and easily. It also lightly bruises them, which helps the leaves release their wonderful flavours into the vinegar. We then fill a clean glass jar to just below the brim with tightly packed pine needles, and cover them completely with some raw apple cider vinegar (we normally use a 350ml Kilner jar and approx. 300ml of vinegar to cover the needles). The jar is then sealed and left for 2 months in the dark of a kitchen cupboard. We usually agitate it every week or so by gently tipping the jar upside down and back again. After the 2 months is up, and the vinegar has turned a dark amber colour, we strain out the pine needles and pour the vinegar into a sterilised glass bottle. It keeps for about a year.
Our favourite way to use the vinegar is in a simple salad dressing: 1 tbsp pine needle vinegar whisked together with 3.5 tbsp walnut oil and 1 tsp raw honey. We eat it lightly drizzled over bowls of salad leaves and served alongside roasted fish or bosky foraged mushrooms. Or tossed with freshly picked and griddled asparagus. It is also wonderful stirred into warm pulses, particularly lentils or borlotti beans, with a crumbling of sea salt and a few twists of freshly ground pepper.
Pine Needle Vinegar
- a few handfuls of edible pine needles
- apple cider vinegar, ideally raw and unpasteurised (enough to cover the pine needles)
Fill a clean glass jar of your choice to the brim with tightly packed edible pine needles (removed from their stems).
Cover the needles completely with apple cider vinegar.
Seal the jar and leave it for two months in the dark of a kitchen cupboard, gently agitating it every week or so by gently tipping the jar upside down and back again.
After the 2 months is up, and the vinegar has turned a dark amber colour, strain out the pine needles and pour the vinegar into a sterilised glass bottle. It should keep for about a year.
We are always extra careful when foraging ingredients for cooking. We never pick anything that we can’t identify and, if unsure, we consult the advice of our guide books. For tree identification, we’ve found online resources such as the Woodland Trust or Forestry Commission websites super handy. This guide from the Forestry Commission archives is really useful for identifying conifers (which covers both pine and fir trees) and this page is useful for Douglas Fir specifically. Luckily conifers are generally quite easy to identify and many of them are edible, but there are some exceptions (in particular the very poisonous yew tree), so we always exercise extreme caution and double check the edibility before eating.